JEFFERSON CITY — A bill mandating English-only driver's license exams received support from some legislators, but failed to resonate with a variety of interest groups, including social welfare and immigration rights groups.
The bill, proposed by Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, would require Missouri driver's license tests to be administered in English and without the use of interpreters. Currently, the written test is available in 11 foreign languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Greek and Bosnian, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The Public Safety Department estimates the elimination of foreign language tests will save $46,000 in fiscal year 2012.
Oklahoma state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, testified in favor of the bill to a House committee via phone Wednesday. Terrill authored a similar bill, which Oklahoma passed into law in the spring of 2009, making all driver's license tests English only. Terrill said making tests available only in English would "avoid all the costs, the conflicts and the burdens associated with bilingualism and multilingualism."
"We should encourage immigrants to learn the history, the culture, the tradition and most importantly the language, which is English, of our country," Terrill said. "One who cannot speak or understand English is frankly a safety hazard to themselves and the people around them while they are on the road."
Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone, stressed the importance of safety, saying that drivers must have the capability to "function on the roadway, especially when it's important to be able to read and interpret."
"Well, this is sort of a facetious example, but imagine if you had someone driving an 18-wheeler," Nolte said, " just driving along, and there's a sign that says 'bridge out ahead,' and they can't read that. That's a public safety issue."
Nolte said he felt that the majority of the committee was also in favor.
Not everyone was as supportive.
Social welfare, immigration rights and several religious groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Missouri Immigrant and Refuge Advocates and Jewish Vocational Service, wrote in opposition to the bill.
Bob Quinn, lobbyist and executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, said in a statement, "perhaps a state with a name which is a French attempt to pronounce a Sioux word... should stop pretending that we are all still subjects of Her Royal Majesty and must speak her official language to the exclusion of others."
Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, felt the proposal "made no sense at all."
"Who is going to be benefited?" Ancel asked. "They're trying to correct a problem that doesn't exist. Some part of their anti-immigrant agenda, I guess."
Ancel cited a Peruvian immigrant friend who moved to the United States seeking political asylum. Ancel's friend was not fluent in English, but was able to obtain a license and drive to both work and English classes. Ancel said being able to drive "made it possible [for him] to survive."
"This is a bill that is just taking up legislative time," Ancel said, "There are burning problems in Missouri.Why are we wasting time on this?"